LOS ANGELES (AP) — A trail of red flags about his behavior toward women followed Matthew Harris on an academic journey that took him to three of the nation’s most prestigious universities — Duke, Cornell and then the University of California, Los Angeles.
Former graduate classmates at Duke and Cornell, where he studied before becoming a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA in recent years, described him as inappropriate and creepy, with obsessive behaviors toward some women that became harassment and, in at least one case, sexual harassment.
Last week, police in Colorado arrested Harris after he allegedly emailed an 800-page document and posted videos threatening violence against dozens of people at UCLA, prompting the school to cancel in-person classes for a day. Harris is expected to appear in court on Tuesday.
In online class reviews, interviews and emails obtained by The Associated Press, current and former students at all three universities alleged negligence by the schools for letting Harris slide previously, despite his concerning conduct.
Two former Duke students, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they fear for their safety, said that while they did not report Harris to the university at the time, his behavior was well known within the small philosophy program and they did not feel they would have been supported if they’d come forward.
Taken together, the students’ allegations at three top-tier colleges raise questions about the line between uncomfortable and actionable behavior, a university’s duty to encourage the reporting of it, and an institution’s obligation to prevent it from occurring at another school.
The students’ descriptions prompts another question: What, if anything, did the universities do to get Harris help?
A graduate student at Duke as he completed his Ph.D. in 2019, Harris also attended Cornell for a year before UCLA hired him as a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer until he was put on “investigatory leave” last March after allegedly sending pornographic and violent content to his students.
The former Duke students described their initial interactions with Harris as largely collegial, but with strange undertones that grew.
But Andrew Janiak, a Duke philosophy professor and former chair of the department, said he never had any indication of such behavior. Janiak received the first reports of harassment in late March, after Harris had left Duke, and the philosophy professor immediately contacted UCLA.
Duke and Cornell declined to comment.
The signs were there, like bread crumbs scattered across the three schools.
A house party at Cornell where Harris tried to rope a relative stranger into a discussion about his mental health. Negative reviews of his UCLA lectures. Odd interactions with women on the Duke campus. Incessant text messages and emails.
“No one would look at that kid and say, ‘Oh, he’s fine,’” said Brian Van Brunt, an expert on campus violence and mental health. “Typically someone like this didn’t just appear out of nowhere.”
In recent years, most colleges and universities have formed behavioral intervention and threat assessment teams in response to school shootings. Emails and court documents show UCLA’s behavioral intervention team was involved, but possibly not until as late as March 30.
That spring, Harris began sending bizarre and disturbing emails. Emails to UCLA students allegedly included pornographic and violent content sent to women in his research group, prompting his suspension.
UCLA officials said in an email that people at the university “brought concerns” to its Title IX office last year, which “worked with the individuals to address the concerns.” The university announced Monday that it was creating a task force “to conduct a comprehensive review” of its protocols for assessing potential threats.
In April, Harris’ mother reached out to a professor at University of California, Irvine, saying her son in January had threatened in emails to “hunt” and kill the woman. The professor had briefly met Harris in 2013 while they were both at Duke and he reached out in 2020.
Harris’ emails to his mother prompted the UC system and UCLA police to obtain protective orders against him.
In November — months after he’d been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility and diagnosed with schizophrenia — Harris tried to buy a gun but was denied because of those orders.
Now, his former classmates wonder: How did Harris even get hired at UCLA?
The onus is on the incoming institution to ask targeted questions about an applicant beyond their academic credentials, according to Saunie Schuster, a lawyer who advises colleges.
While schools typically cannot mention unproven accusations for fear of a lawsuit, Schuster said, they can do a background check. It’s not clear whether UCLA officials did so; the university did not answer AP’s questions regarding its hiring process.
Schuster said a background search would’ve allowed questions to be posed to former employers like, “Has this individual demonstrated any conduct that you’ve observed that would give you concerns?”
For Harris’ former classmates, the answer is clear: Yes.
Associated Press writer Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed.